Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Here Comes A Regular... Part 3

I’m glad so many people enjoyed my interview with E. Lockhart and are looking forward to her new book like I am. (I think I need like a year vacation to catch up on reading all the books I want to read!) Now I will return to our topic of the week: my job at the Beacon Pub.

So part of the reason I took the job at the Beacon was to hone my writing skills. Yes, you did read that correctly. I took a job at a bar to learn how to write and I did learn more about writing there than I have at my current job where I actually write letters and proposal drafts and stuff. Why? Because there is this old adage about writing that says, “Write what you know.” (Though my friend Annika said she would amend it to “write what you love” and I must say I like that better.) As a twenty-four year old, I didn’t know all that much. I liked to think I did, but really… So what better place to find characters and learn about people who led their lives in a different way than I did than a bar? We all know how much oral storytelling goes on over drinks. And being a good bartender is not about how many fancy drinks you know how to make (though I’m sure that helps in some places, but the Beacon is a shot-and-a-beer joint), it’s about what a good listener you are. Fortunately, as much as I love to talk and tell stories, I also love to listen.

If you prove to be a genuine listener, you are rewarded with bigger tips and returning customers. When you work the afternoon/early evening shift at the bar, you especially depend on your returning customers or regulars. They are your bread and butter. Without them you’d be broke and bored as shit.

At other bars, more than one bartender works at the same time. At the Beacon there was not enough business to justify this. Scott and his brother Pat both worked a couple shifts a week and the other mainstays were me, Jme, and Dan. A few others came and went, but for the most part the five of us covered the two shifts a day Monday through Saturday and the one shift on Sunday night (except during football season, when a Sunday afternoon shift was added. And guess who got it? The person who hates football more than anything of course, yours truly! But we’ll talk about that later.). A lot of people asked me if it freaked me out to work alone. Didn’t I worry about bar brawls or getting robbed? I guess, it did cross my mind at first, but I quickly learned my regulars had my back.

I started work at 1 pm on weekday afternoons. Luis would open the place up at noon. Luis was the guy who did repairs at the bar and his wife Maria cleaned. Maria was there when I opened at noon on Saturdays. Scott liked and trusted Luis, but not Maria. He was convinced that she stole from the bar and I was told that under no circumstances was I to let her see where the money was kept. And she was pretty sketchy, probably not even forty and she was missing all of her teeth. The only reason I could think of for that was drug abuse and she basically confirmed it when she told me about her past coke problem. Opening on Saturdays was pretty torturous because I knew Maria would stand around flapping her toothless gums (she had dentures but never wore them) while I stocked and set up the bar (Jme said Maria did this in hopes that I would help her take out the trash because the girl before me had always helped her) and I liked to start my days at the bar peacefully since I knew once the customers came in, I would have to be “on” all the time.

On weekdays it was rare that anyone would be in the bar when I opened. If so, they’d be a random stopping by for a couple beers on their lunch break. I actually was irritated when this happened because One Life to Live was on from 1 to 2 and I liked to watch it while I restocked and got organized. I had to have the money all a certain way—upside down and facing the same direction—and as I mentioned the bar was in a state of disrepair so strategically placed towels near the drains below the tappers were necessary to sop up leaks. I also made sure I had an equal number of glasses on each side of the bar and set up my dishwashing stations.

By two my show was over and I was set up and ready for business. Sometimes business was not ready for me, so I read and I actually even wrote and worked on revisions in the bar, especially on Saturdays when, unless it was baseball season, there was nothing on TV. My love for baseball was reborn while I worked at the Beacon because I spent so many afternoons alone or with a couple regulars watching Sox games.

My first customer of the day on weekdays was usually Will, a businessman in his late twenties/early thirties who worked at home and took his lunch break at the bar. Will wasn’t that much older than me and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that we loved the same music. Customers with similar music tastes identified me because of my car, which was plastered in band stickers. They’d come in and ask immediately, “Do you drive the Civic with the (Fill in the blank band) sticker?” I liked those people. With Will, I think it was the Pixies sticker and we bonded over Dinosaur Jr. Will and I discussed music and politics with typical Gen X fervor while he drank four or five Buds and he always tipped 10$. Yeah, he was a good guy, Will.

Another one of my favorites, Mr. Howe usually came in shortly after Will. He was always there in time for Jeopardy. Jeopardy was often the highlight of my afternoon. I loved playing along with whoever was in the bar and after that my television viewing got pretty depressing. The Beacon was the kind of bar where unless it was baseball season (and thank god, it’s a long season), you watched Jeopardy and then you watched two hours of news. Even though it’s the same news that they play over and over again with little updates every half an hour, if you try to change the channel, you can bet someone’s gonna yell at you.

Anyway, when Mr. Howe came in, I would fire up the popcorn machine. (Actually I always fired up the popcorn machine around 3. It was my mid-afternoon snack. Can’t tell you how much I miss it at my office job…) Mr. Howe’s a retired labor negotiator and he would come in, eagerly watch Jeopardy, smoke a cigar, chat with the other regulars and me, drink a few Bud Lights, buy whoever else was in there a beer, and he’d always tip 5$. Mr. Howe was the friendliest and the best tipper of the older guys that came in around Jeopardy time. I think that is why Dan, Jme, and I generally referred to him so respectfully as Mr. Howe instead of simply using his first name.

The other older guys that came in were pretty curmudgeonly in comparison. One was a typical grumpy old man. If anyone turned the jukebox one, he’d huff about it until he finished his beer and then he’d promptly leave. I think the other bartenders and some of the other customers were more irritated by him than I was. I found his whole stereotypical “kids these days” type reaction to loud music amusing. Also, he’d lived in Los Angeles for quite a while and when I was preparing to spend 5 weeks there, he gave me all sorts of great tips like fly into Burbank, it’s cheaper and closer to where you’ll be staying anyway. Mr. Howe traveled to L.A. quite a bit too and I always enjoyed hearing them talk about it and talk with the rest of the older crowd about exactly where some old restaurant was located. They were always so precise. “It was on the southwest corner of State and Van Buren. And remember that other place that was two buildings down? First it was called Billy’s and then in 1974 or was it 76, Walter Turnpike bought it out and it became Gigi’s …” It was like they had this old map of this city embedded in their brains. I imagined that someday me and Katie would be like that. “Remember Jedi’s Garden, on the southwest corner of Harlem and Cermak. Well, not quite the corner, it was next to the Pearl Vision. And then they turned it into that breakfast place Yia Yia’s. Man, that was sad, it was one of the only 24 hour places left…”

Observing them, I knew how to realistically write a conversation between folks in their sixties. I was a naturally nostalgic person, I could relate. And actually listening to them inspired me to set my second book in my hometown at my old haunts so I’d always be able to remember them vividly because somehow I don’t think my memory will be as good as that of my regulars.

Anyway, my other regular curmudgeon got on my nerves more. He had a gruff sense of humor that mostly left me feeling insulted and we disagreed about anything to do with world affairs. I remember during Hurricane Katrina when I had CNN on non-stop, he came in and scoffed, “Why are you watching this? No one from your generation cares about this.” And I totally went off on him about how I’d given more money than I could afford to the Red Cross in the wake of this and so had many of my friends and I knew a lot of kids who were planning to volunteer to help out in someway and what the hell was he doing? Yep, didn’t like him much. The only redeeming quality about him besides his girlfriend—who I liked very much, we chatted about gardening and her attempts to learn Polish and I quietly wondered how she could stand him, especially when I watched them bicker daily—was that he did get rid of “Floyd.” He claimed that was what that guy’s name was anyway.

“Floyd” was a smarmy sort who came in carrying a leather duffel bag, ordered PBR draft, refused any of my attempts at conversation, and never ever EVER tipped. I particularly resented this because he drank draft beer and draft beer is more difficult to serve than bottled, especially when you are pouring the first beer of the day. With decent beers after you pour one glass of foam, the rest is fine, but with swill like PBR (no offense to my PBR drinking friends *cough* hipsters, oh just kidding!), you’ve got at least four glasses of foam to struggle with and with my leaky drain. Grrr. So “Floyd” irritated me. My curmudgeon apparently knew “Floyd” from another bar and apparently he’d never tipped there and also borrowed 20$ from someone there and never repaid it. Curmudgeon was ticked about this and one day decided to write “Floyd” a note and asked me to give it to him the next time he came in. Since Curmudgeon tipped and “Floyd” didn’t—even though sometimes Curmudgeon didn’t tip well enough to compensate for my annoyance—my choice was clear. Whatever he said in that note, “Floyd” never returned after he read it.

Like, I said, your regulars, even the sort of obnoxious ones, always have your back. And I still have a bunch more of them to tell you about, which I will resume with tomorrow…

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